Peter Viereck, a noted historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a founder of the mid-20th-century American conservative movement who later denounced what he saw as its late-20th-century excesses, died on Saturday [May 13, 2006] at his home in South Hadley, Mass. He was 89.
Professor Viereck, who had been in declining health for some years, died in his sleep, his daughter, Valerie Viereck Gibbs, said.
A specialist in Russian history, Professor Viereck was an emeritus professor at Mount Holyoke College, where he had taught since 1948. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for his first collection of poems, "Terror and Decorum" (Scribner, 1948).
Professor Viereck is also widely credited with helping to bring conservatism out of the margins and into the mainstream as an intellectual movement. In books and articles throughout the 1940's and 50's, he condemned what he saw as the hidebound utopianism of Marxist thinking. As he wrote in "The Unadjusted Man" (Beacon Press, 1956):
"The liberal sees outer, removable institutions as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as creating a world in which evil will disappear. His tools for this task are progress and enlightenment. The conservative sees the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil; sees man's social task as coming to terms with a world in which evil is perpetual and in which justice and compassion will both be perpetually necessary. His tools for this task are the maintenance of ethical restraints inside the individual and the maintenance of unbroken, continuous social patterns inside the given culture as a whole."
Professor Viereck's brand of conservatism shunned extremism of either stripe. He was an admirer of the New Deal, a supporter of Adlai Stevenson and an anti-Communist who made it clear that he had little use for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
In a profile in The New Yorker last year, Professor Viereck said he thought his book "Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt, 1815-1949" (Scribner, 1949) "opened people's minds to the idea that to be conservative is not to be satanic." He added, referring to William F. Buckley Jr., "Once their minds were opened, Buckley came in."
Peter Robert Edwin Viereck was born in Manhattan on Aug. 5, 1916. He earned a bachelor's degree in 19th-century history and literature from Harvard in 1937. He continued on there for a master's degree in European history in 1939 and a Ph.D. in the same field in 1942.
In World War II, he was an Army intelligence analyst, studying Nazi propaganda. At the time, his father, George Sylvester Viereck, a Nazi propagandist, was in federal prison.
A German-born newspaperman and poet, the elder Mr. Viereck had remained loyal to his homeland through two world wars. In early 1942, he was convicted of withholding material facts from the State Department when he registered as a foreign agent; he served four years.
The year before, Peter Viereck had published his first book, "Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler" (Knopf, 1941), a condemnation of Nazi ideology that traced its roots back to the 19th-century Romanticism that suffused the work of Wagner and others.
He remained estranged from his father for many years.
By the early 1950's, Professor Viereck had begun to criticize conservatism's course. Reviewing Mr. Buckley's first book, "God and Man at Yale" in The New York Times Book Review in 1951, he wrote, "The author irresponsibly treats not only mild social democracy but even most social reform as almost crypto-Communism."
In 1978, he published an updated edition of "Conservatism Revisited" (Greenwood Press) that added a section titled "The New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?"
At his death, Professor Viereck was at work on two books, "Strict Wildness: Discoveries in Poetry and History" and "Transplantings," translations and criticism of German poetry. Both are scheduled to be published within the year by Transaction Publishers.
He was twice married to, and twice divorced from, Anya de Markov. He is survived by his wife, Betty Falkenberg; his two children with Ms. de Markov, JohnAlexis, of Culver City, Calif., and Ms. Gibbs, of Columbus, Ohio; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
As a poet, Professor Viereck drew mixed, sometimes perplexed, reviews. His work combined lyrical and pastoral preoccupations with a parodic wit that some critics found delightful and others found strained. Here is the opening of "To a Sinister Potato," which sends up Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
O vast earth-apple, waiting to be fried.
Of all life's starers the most many-eyed.
What furtive purpose hatched you long ago
In Indiana or in Idaho?
But he was also known for serious verse, notably "Archer in the Marrow" (Norton, 1987), a book-length cycle that took 20 years to complete. In 1995, Professor Viereck published "Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems, 1995-1938" (University of Arkansas). Much of the collection dealt with the ravages of time:
Though life ails just a day faster than art allays,
Though age rots art before it can learn to sing true,
Sing anyhow. Continue.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company